As 2012 begins, the full scope of the realignment in Canadian politics is becoming clear.
Stephen Harper, who once held fragile minorities in Parliament and a tenuous grip on his own party, is now in complete control. Harper’s hegemony seems untouchable for the time being.
Harper’s victory in his long-term political project marks a shift within the Canadian establishment. More than ever, oil politics shapes this country’s domestic and foreign policies. Harper, from his movement’s base in Alberta, has stitched together enough support that he intends to essentially rule without Quebec. Many commentators are already wondering out loud whether Harper’s western-Anglophone political priorities will put the country into a new crisis of unity.
The most serious divisions over sovereignty, culture and governance, however, will not be with Quebec, but with First Nations. The prime minister who once bizarrely bragged that this country had “no history” of colonialism now displays a colonialist mentality in opening a new era of confrontation with First Nations.
The humanitarian crisis at Attawapiskat earlier this year provided a hint of what is to come. When the appalling and dangerous housing conditions in the remote, northern Ontario community became a media sensation, Harper promptly blamed the victims. The community was put under third-party management. Harper ignored opposition pleas for him to visit the devastated community. Some labeled Attawapiskat Harper’s “Katrina moment”, but that was unfair. Even George Bush eventually visited New Orleans.
The biggest clash, in the short term, will be in British Columbia, where the needs of Big Oil put Harper on a collision course with First Nations, and this confrontation may come to define this period in Canadian history. The Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline is the latest mega infrastructure project designed to ramp up exports of Alberta’s tar sands, primarily to emerging markets in Asia.
The Enbridge pipeline route runs right through unceded First Nations territories. On December 1, 2011, a First Nations ceremony was held in Vancouver to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the Fraser Declaration, a document now signed by over 130 First Nations leaders who are vowing “a wall” of opposition to block Enbridge and other tar sands pipelines through BC.
Previous federal governments may have handled the conflict over Enbridge somewhat delicately. After all British Columbia, unlike most of the rest of Canada, is largely unceded – without treaties between the Crown and First Nations.
Harper, though, has charged in head first. In numerous interviews, he has made clear that pushing through Enbridge is a key priority. Recently he went so far as to claim that the environmental review process – which includes public hearings in BC and Alberta throughout January, February and March – was at risk of being “hijacked” by “foreign interests”. He was referring to US environmental groups and philanthropists who contributed money to the anti pipeline cause.
The real foreign interests driving the reckless expansion of the tar sands, however, are Harper’s ideological and Big Oil brethren on the right in the United States and the giant state capitalist oil interests of China. Even the French oil company Total, through a Canadian subsidiary, has a stake in Enbridge. The multi-national needs of the oil industry are also the driving force in the Harper government’s shameful stance in international climate negotiations – an embarrassment to Canada on the international stage.
Finally, Harper would do well to consider that to the First Nations in northern BC, Ottawa itself might look like a “foreign interest” – since there are no treaties and since aboriginal rights to land and title have never been extinguished.
The rest of us – the majority of voters and of Canadians – who oppose Harper’s political project, would do well to heed the calls for support coming from the First Nations in Enbridge’s way. If they can stop Harper in northern BC, the rest of us stand a better chance of stopping Harper once and for all.
Serge Corbeil will return in the next issue of the Source Newspaper.